Evel Knievel
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  ABC's Wide World of Sports
"Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport - The thrill of victory... and the agony of defeat... the human drama of athletic competition... this is ABC's Wide World of Sports."

In the realm of sport, television has helped create love affairs with many athletes. One of television's longest running programs, ABC's Wide World of Sports, created many of those early love affairs. One of the most famous, and in some cases, infamous affairs, was with Evel Knievel.

It has been more than 24 years since Knievel's presence has graced the Wide World stage. In a three-year span, he shocked and thrilled audiences with his death-defying acts, making an indelible impact on both the worlds of sport and entertainment. With that said, it can be argued that today's increased popularity of extreme sports can be directly traced to Knievel and Wide World of Sports.

Born Robert Craig Knievel on Oct. 17, 1938 in Butte, Mont., he was a standout athlete at Butte High School in track and field, ski jumping and ice hockey. In 1957, he won the Class A Rocky Mountain Ski Association men's ski jumping championship.

However, the public recognized Knievel's athletic prowess and guts as daredevil. Knievel credits his career choice to Joey Chitwood's Auto Daredevil Show, which he saw as an 8-year-old. It wasn't until his late 20s, though, that Knievel began performing daredevil acts

In 1965, he formed a troupe called Evel Knievel's Motorcycle Daredevils. This troupe did what would be considered minor in the realm of daredevildom -- jumping through hoops of fire, over dangerous live animals, etc. But the troupe didn't last long. By 1966, Knievel was flying solo, promoting himself, building ramps and preparing whatever else was necessary for his shows.

True to Roone Arledge's vision of giving the unusual in sport a chance to be noticed, Evel Knievel became a national icon under the limelight of the cameras of ABC's Wide World of Sports. It was the perfect venue for Knievel. Three weeks after his 35th birthday, he made his first appearance on Wide World, when he successfully jumped 50 stacked cars at the Los Angeles Coliseum in front of a crowd of 35,000.

That jump led to six more appearances on the program over the next three years. His 1975 jump of 14 Greyhound buses at King's Island amusement park in Ohio remains Wide World's highest rated with a 22.3 rating and 52 percent share. Of his seven appearances on WWOS, five still rank among the top 20-rated shows in Wide World history, earning a rating of 18.0 or better.

Evel Knievel on ABC's Wide World of Sports
Date Place Jumped Result Video
11/10/1973 L.A. Coliseum 50 stacked cars Successful Video
02/17/1974 North Richmond Hill, Texas 11 Mack trucks Successful Video
08/31/1974 Canadian National Exposition 13 Mack trucks Successful Video
09/8/1974 Snake River Canyon, Idaho Canyon Crashed  
05/31/1975 Wembley Stadium, London, England 13 Double-tiered buses Crashed Video
10/25/1975 King's Island, Ohio 14 Greyhound buses Successful Video
10/30/1976 The Kingdome, Seattle, Wash. 7 Greyhound buses Successful Video

But there was a price to pay for Evel's work. Knievel estimates he spent nearly three years recovering from his injuries. On WWOS, Evel crashed twice, and was lucky to have survived both times.

The first crash occurred at Snake River Canyon in Idaho. Despite two failed unmanned practice attempts, Evel decided to go forward with the jump for the fans in attendance and ABC, which was televising the event live. In place of his signature Harley Davidson, Evel attempted this jump in a Sky-Cycle -- a jet-powered sled that took off from an inclined metal runway constructed on the edge of the canyon by the Knievel team.

Seconds after Evel Knievel's Sky-Cycle cleared the edge of the canyon, his parachute ejected prematurely. As fans, family, crew and ABC watched Evel descend into the canyon, it appeared he was heading directly for the river. Landing in the river would have meant certain death. Luckily, Evel and the Sky-Cycle were saved because they landed on the rocks on the far edge of the river.

However dangerous his jump was at Snake River, Evel returned to his Harley for a jump in London's Wembley Stadium, which was even more frightening. Evel successfully cleared 13 double-tiered buses, but his landing didn't go according to plan.

A moment after his motorcycle hit the landing ramp, Evel was launched over his handlebars. Once he plummeted to the stadium floor, the momentum from the jump continued to pull, scrape and smear him for another 20 yards with his Harley in tow.

But Knievel's problems did not end there. When his body finally came to a stop, the Harley landed directly on top of him. As a result, he broke his hand, re-injured his pelvis and had a compression fracture of a vertebra. Despite his condition, Evel was determined to, and did, walk out of the stadium.

Evel was on Wide World just five months later at King's Island in Ohio, and America's love affair with Evel peaked. Although it has been more than 24 years since his last appearance on Wide World, when he jumped seven buses in The Kingdome, America's love affair with Evel has waned, but has never disappeared.

Copyright ©2004 William Thompson.